Sunday 22 October
Year A: 20th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 24)
Liturgical Colour: Green
- Exodus 33:12-23
- Psalm 99:1-9
- 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
- Matthew 22:15-22
In our Gospel reading people are again trying to catch Jesus out. This time it is the Pharisees. They are posing a question designed to make him take a clear and dangerous stand on whether Jews should pay taxes to the emperor. They were perhaps hoping he would say ‘No’ so that they could hand him over to the governor, Pilate, who was responsible for collecting taxes in Roman Judea. Jesus’ answer is brilliant in its simplicity and insight, and they back off. (Although, the same charge was levelled against him at his trial Luke 23.1-4.)
This episode is often quoted during debates about how Christians can remain faithful to the authority of Christ as they live in the world and relate to the culture surrounding them.
Although it is quite old now, one of the books still most quoted as a starting point for this subject is H. Richard Niebuhr’s ‘Christ and Culture’. In it he looks at five different ways Christians might view and interact with the wider culture surrounding them; asking how much we should let it shape us, or not.
These ways are: Christ Against Culture (following Christ means rejecting the world that is at odds with our faith); Christ of Culture (affirms both Christ and culture and sees no opposition between the two); Christ above Culture (a bit both/and! Christ validates the best of culture whilst opposing sinful elements); Christ and Culture in Paradox (culture is neutral while the righteousness of the individual is measured against the righteousness of God as they make their way in the world); and Christ the Transformer of Culture (the love of Christ will transform culture and return it to its essential goodness, and we are part of that process).
Our view of how our faith relates to culture will affect what we think we have to offer to our congregations and communities.
Sometimes a warm and welcoming sacred space away from the rest of life is exactly what we all need, and we can try and provide that. We can use our faith to affirm our interdependence and the sacredness and dignity of all life, and we can provide good pastoral care to those in need. We can also use our faith to critique issues and injustices arising in society and address the source of them, speaking out prophetically. We can check our actions against our faith, and correct ourselves when we are drifting into using culture as an excuse for behaving in ways we know are not loving, and preach and teach others to do the same. Finally, we can play our part in transforming the world we share into a place of justice and love.
As with most models, things are not clear cut, and perhaps the best way forward is to recognise some truth in all five. Like the five marks of mission, all are part of the whole.
Sometimes it is hard to know how we as Christians should react to the world beyond our immediate communities, especially when the news is as grim as it is at the moment. Can the different ways of thinking about Christ and Culture give us any helpful perspectives?
Perhaps we should retreat from it all by turning off our televisions and listening to some religious music instead. (Sometimes that might be necessary for wellbeing for a while.) Maybe we believe Christ can be found in everything and so we can look for love and hope in the midst of it all. Or perhaps we see laid bare, the presence of good and evil in the world. Maybe we notice individual acts of righteousness within the chaos. Or perhaps it makes us more determined to play our part in promoting justice and peace, wherever we can.
Sometimes when the world around us is especially unsettled and disturbing, we cannot see clearly and do not know what we should think. Although we may feel helpless, we can at least pray. The following is a night-time prayer by the late Irish priest and poet John O’ Donahue from his book ‘Benedictus’.
As the fever of day calms towards twilight
May all that is strained in us come to ease.
We pray for all who suffered violence today,
May an unexpected serenity surprise them.
For those who risk their lives each day for peace,
May their hearts glimpse providence at the heart of history.
That those who make riches from violence and war
Might hear in their dreams the cry of the lost.
That we might see through our fear of each other
A new vision to heal our fatal attraction to aggression.
That those who enjoy the privilege of peace
Might not forget their tormented brothers and sisters.
That the wolf may lie down with the lamb,
That our swords be beaten into ploughshares
And no hurt or harm be done
Anywhere along the holy mountain.